Dependent Group Contingencies
Dependent group contingencies are reward systems in which all children earn token reinforcers for engaging in target behaviors, and work together toward a group goal. When the group has collectively earned enough tokens to reach the group goal, they then trade their tokens in for a group-wide terminal reinforcer. For tips on how to get started with your dependent group contingency, see Class-Wide Reward Systems. Here are some ideas for dependent group contingencies that you might use in your classroom:
- Reinforce target
behaviors with paper chain links; students earn the reward when
the paper chain has reached the specified length
- Reinforce target behaviors with pom pom puffs or colorful ping pong balls; students earn the reward when the puffs/balls fill a small jar
- Reinforce target behaviors with a body part from Mr. Potato Head; students earn the reward when Mr. Potato Head has all his body parts
- Reinforce target behaviors with large cardboard blocks; students earn the reward when the stack is as tall as the preselected student for the day
- Reinforce target behaviors with cut-out physical characteristics on the school mascot (e.g., spots on a cow); students earn the reward when the mascot has all his traits, affixed to the mascot with Velcro®
For many classrooms, dependent group contingencies work well. If a child does not seem to understand or care about the group contingencies, an independent individual contingency (in addition to the class-wide contingency) may be needed.
What kinds of reinforcers should I offer?
Reinforcers don’t need to be “big” or last a long time, as long as they are meaningful to children and reinforce the target behaviors. You can learn about what kinds of reinforcers might be meaningful by conducting Preference Assessments, observing your children, or simply asking children what they would like to work for. Because there is one terminal reinforcer that children work toward as a group, this is a great opportunity to practice collaborative decision-making (e.g., voting on the day’s terminal reinforcer). Once your class has decided on a terminal reinforcer, provide a visual (e.g., at eye level in the classroom) to remind children what they are working toward.
Remember to make reinforcers available only when the class meets their goal, and be sure to tailor your reinforcer options to the interests of your students. Here are some sample group reinforcers to help you get started:
- Dance party to favorite song at afternoon circle time
- Favorite song sing-a-long (e.g., “Let it go” from Frozen)
- Extra time at recess
- Special materials (e.g., bubbles) at recess
- Walk in the community
- Mini field trip to a special location (e.g., library, older students’ classroom)
- Picnic lunch outside
- Special center only open for completing group goal (e.g., water play)
- Special costume box available during dramatic play
- Special class game (e.g., classroom-wide obstacle course)
- Short, educational YouTube video at afternoon circle time (e.g., Dora the Explorer clip)
- Using fun or special materials during art time (e.g., glitter, glow-in-the-dark pens)
- Pajama day the next school day
Here’s a real classroom example of a dependent group contingency in action:
Ashley used a dependent group contingency called the STAR Chart Group Reward System in an inclusive preschool classroom of children ages 4-6. (Note: the STAR Chart Group Reward System was adapted from the STAR Chart Individual Reward System, which you can read about on the Independent Group Contingency page.) Her class contained a wide variety of learners, including learners with developmental disabilities. The STAR chart served to reinforce class-wide rules that made up the pneumonic STAR:
- Be Safe
- Be a Team Player, and
- Be Respectful
Students received star tokens for engaging in target behaviors, and when each grid square in the STAR chart contained a star, the students earned the terminal, class-wide reinforcer.
Preparation: To prepare the STAR Chart Reward System, Ashley’s team purchased a Styrofoam poster board, and used a Sharpie® marker to title it and create an 8×10 a grid. They laminated and cut out stars, and affixed Velcro® to the back of each star.
Selecting the terminal reinforcer: Before the students began collecting stars for the week, they nominated reward possibilities and voted on the reward they would work toward. When Ashley’s students were first introduced to the class-wide reward system, her team delivered smaller daily reinforcers (e.g., extra time outside, opening a special center). As the students became more fluent with the reward system, Ashley and her team gradually reduced the frequency with which they delivered star tokens. Over the course of several months, Ashley’s team continued to use the same STAR chart, but thinned reinforcement until teachers were delivering weekly terminal reinforcers (e.g., pajama days, bring-a-stuffed-animal days, ice cream parties) with greater value than the former daily terminal reinforcers (e.g., extra time outside, opening a special center). For students new to class-wide reinforcement systems, we recommend terminal reinforcers be delivered at least once daily, although reinforcement can be delivered less frequently as children become more fluent with the reward system. For more information on schedules of reinforcement, see the Differential Reinforcement section.
Incorporating the reward system: During morning circle time, Ashley and her team reviewed the target behaviors for the day and reminded them of what they were working toward. Throughout the day, all teachers on the team (as well as visiting teachers, therapists, and specialists) delivered laminated stars to students for engaging in behaviors that were consistent with the class-wide rules. For example, a teacher might give a child a star token for using walking feet in the classroom (i.e., being safe) or raising her hand during circle time (i.e., being respectful). The team checked in frequently with one another to make sure all children received token reinforcement several times each day.
Modifications for individual learners: To aid children who needed extra assistance, Ashley and her team provided prompting and verbal reminders as needed. Ashley also created adapted materials for learners with limited verbal repertoires. For example, if the target behavior was to ask for a turn instead of taking a toy without permission, she might create a “Can I have a turn?” picture card that could be used by the student with a limited verbal repertoire. She also created multiple copies of the picture, and taught all students in the class how to use it.
For one student, the class-wide reward system was not reinforcing enough to change his behavior. The teacher implemented an individual contingency for him (i.e., gave him his own token board). They also modified token delivery for the class-wide reward system to make it more reinforcing for that child. Token delivery can be made more reinforcing for individual learners on an as-needed basis by pairing tokens with small edible items (e.g., a single Skittle®) or by putting pictures/stickers of favorite characters on the tokens. Eventually, the class-wide reward system became even more reinforcing for the student than his individual token board, and they removed the individual token board entirely.
To cite this page (APA 6th edition):
- Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Dependent group contingencies. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/ebip/dependent-group-contingencies